Caribana: Theatre Without Walls

by Lennox V. Farrell and Raymond Watts

Caribana, like Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, from which it comes, is described as, "theatre without walls."

There are, however, differences between them. While carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is celebrated nation-wide, Caribana is confined to the urban underbelly of Toronto. While, too, in the Caribbean most people participate in carnival, in Toronto as visitors flow in, bringing tourist dollars from across the borders, most Toronto residents ebb out to cottage country. Carnival, be it in Caribbean Cuba or South American Brazil, is also that period of carnality and carousing which appropriately precedes the penances of Lent. This latter is observed in Catholicized cultures from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Monday. In the older Hebrew calendars which these replaced, this would be from the Feast of Atonement to Pentecost. In Trinidad and Tobago, too, these seasons of carnival and Lent were celebrated. There, the French Creoles: locally-born individuals of European descent, observed the pre-lenten Mardi Gras. These were festivities during which wearing a mask allowed one the right to license and public carnality ostensibly out of character.

Another celebration engaged in at this time but by the enslaved Africans was Cannes Brulees or Camboulay. It was a patois translation of "Cane Burning". In the 20th Century, people in countries like Grenada against oppressive governments would have what was called, SkyRed. This was so-called from the glow of night-time fires as sugarcane fields were set ablaze in protest.

The earlier Camboulay was the most significant celebration of the African population, and became especially so after the August 1st 1834 proclamation ending slavery in the British Empire. This led to region-wide, annual celebrations by them. Among those who participated and built Camboulay festivities were women considered 'loose'. Former slaves and especially for this, they earned this dubious title because the elites referred to them as being, outside the diameter of humanity: or Diamettre. From this came the local term, Jamette, a euphemism for whore.

Burning the cane before cutting it, cleaned out mongooses, snakes and other undesirable vermin. It also prevented the half-naked bodies of slave men, women and children from being otherwise sliced by the sharp edges of the caneblade. After burning, the crop was harvested immediately. This meant toil from sunrise to sunrise. No other plantation crop so consumed the lives of so many slaves, to the point that their numbers were replenished, not by births, but by new infusions of humans from the West coast of Africa.

Sometimes, these combustible cane fields would catch fire. Plantation owners would then summon assistance from other owners who would drive their slaves to "put out the fire". Fires could also be intentionally started as revenge for, or resentment against any of the many slights and injuries which daily ambushed a slave.

The former slaves, after emancipation, on August 1st of every year, held certain rituals. Gatherings for telling stories, singing and "stick fighting" were commonplace. The ex-slaves, after leaving the plantations had migrated to urban ghettoes in Port of Spain, like, Behind the Bridge. These were hook-worm warrens where languished the wretched of the earth. But from such places and people came the celebrations we now enjoy. As from the yardboys of Jamaica who gave the world, Reggae music, so too from these ghettoes came instruments like the steelpan and musical forms like the calypso.

These, like African-based religions, for example, Shouter Baptists and Shango were outlawed. As late as 1945, for example, one could be given a stiffer jail term when appearing before a magistrate if the Police convinced the Court that the defendant was also a "steelband man".

Ironically, the steelpan was born because the feared African Drum had been banned by the authorities. The sound of an African drum to the upperclasses was sheer horror. Such drums included the "bouller, the fouller and the cutter hammering a staccato beat, all in harmony with the Lavway, and Chantuelle as men were egged on by women not to be cowards, but to jump into the gayelle to battle."

The drum, in particular drove the fear of Hell itself into the plantocracy because it was thought that the drum in Haiti had been the singular instrument used in the successful, anti- slavery war led by such revolutionaries as Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines. As part of these efforts to control the ex-slaves, the flambeaux was banned. Subsequent attempts were made to ban carnival, itself. These efforts began as early as 1849 and continued up to 1881 when the stickmen decisively faced down British forces.

The Church as a responsible social institution, played the most decisive role. It astutely shifted the revolutionary August 1st carnival celebrations, to between February and March; the period immediately preceding the penetential services of Lent. That which could not be banned, was thus neutered.

Interestingly, the elites in Trinidad participated again in force only after the 1950s, when it was the church which again played a decisive role. A Catholic priest publicly broke ranks and played mas. One calypsonian, in keeping with the times sang, "If the priest could play, (then) who is we (not to play, too)."

The Calinda was also part of the Camboulay festivities. After a symbolic set of cane was set on fire, the ex-slaves would extinguish it with wet crocus bags. The Calinda, or the Lavway would be sung. Rhymes would be improvised. Some would be ribald, others politic, but all satirical, funny and biting. Torches, or flambeaux, would be lit at night, fueled with tar and later with kerosine.

These activities created in those overcrowded warrens, the "theatres without walls". Rival warrens would compete to be best in rhyming, dancing and general feteing. Chantuelles would be led by the chief stickman, sometimes to the shouts of Bois; patois for a wooden stave or club, used by contenders to "fight".

The stickmen would meet in a ring called a "Gayelle". Here, the Africans practised martial arts, for which they became so feared, that laws were passed banning them and their offspring from carrying staves. These laws were enforced up to World War II.

Today, all these art forms and expressions: carnival, steelband, calypso are socially acceptable and enormously profitable. However, while their origins are ignored or deliberately forgotten, it is from such beginnings of the Jamette, the Mardi Gras and the Camboulay that have come our Carnival festivities, today the cornerstone of tourism in metropoles like Toronto. A festive Caribana to all. However, take time too, to commemorate and celebrate its enriching, but humble and despised origins!

Caribana: Theatre Without Walls by Lennox V. Farrell and Raymond Watts

© Copyright 1999. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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